Half Land, Half Water, Wholly Unforgettable

Venturing through California’s Channel Islands National Park
Katherine RivardTravel Ideas
– Tim Hauf/NPS

Did you know it’s possible to visit secluded terrain, only miles from one of the most populated areas in the U.S.? Why not choose this nearby getaway to experience an awe-inspiring vacation destination? You’ll find craggy islands teeming with marine life, complete with isolated views of the wide Pacific. However, without the right research, decision paralysis ensues; it is a crippling reaction to the inability to choose between spectacular islands and the myriad of experiences.

If you’re visiting Channel Islands National Park without having researched what you’ll be doing, you may end up aimlessly trekking across one of the five islands. Truthfully, this would still be a glorious getaway and an excellent boost for your calf muscles. But if you’re looking to find a few remarkable activities to focus on, why not choose from a few of these options, or let them be a starting point for your brainstorm? No matter what, you’ll be sure to have an unforgettable time here.

tombstones on San Miguel Island with the pink clouds lit by the setting sun at Channel Islands National Park

San Miguel Island

Tim Hauf/NPS

On Land

Just an hour’s boat ride from the coast of Los Angeles, you’ll find yourself in a whole new world. Visit Santa Cruz, the largest island, spanning 96 square miles, or explore one of the other five islands preserved by the National Park Service.

  1. Nothing says seclusion like a remote cliff island. Test your ability to unplug during a half day venture at Anacapa Island – this won’t be difficult. There is little to no connectivity on the island. So set your phone on airplane mode to save the battery. Another pro-tip is to bring enough food and water when you visit. Feel like you need a few more hours to get away from it all? You can reserve a primitive camp site that’s a mile hike into this beautiful island.
A small island fox at Channel Islands National Park
Tim Coonan/NPS
  1. Pack a camera and cultivate your photography skills as you search for wildlife (while respecting safe distances from them, of course). The bald eagles are cool, but the island fox, found on 6 of the 8 Channel Islands, is undoubtedly intriguing. Though they’re the size of a house cat, these foxes are the largest native land mammals on the islands. Related to the mainland’s gray fox, these island-dwelling cousins are 1/3 smaller – about the size of a housecat – and exist nowhere else on Earth. Until recently, these adorable carnivores were on the brink of extinction, but are now making a comeback. Snap a pic if you can (though leave the flash off)!
  2. Do you thrive on sandy beaches, plenty of food, and others of your kind? Seals and sea lions feel the same way. These beach bums flock to Point Bennett, a 7.5-mile trek from the landing point at Cuyler Harbor on San Miguel Island. Plan to join a ranger guided tour in the summer to get the most out of your visit to this pinniped party.

A sea of yellow wildflowers on an island at Channel Islands National Park
Tim Hauf/NPS
  1. The islands claim a long history of human inhabitants dating back 13,000 years. From the Chumas peoples 5,000 years ago to the Chinese abalone fishermen in the late 1800s to the sheep and cattle ranchers, these islands have a rich history of being home to many people and cultures throughout time. Step back in time by visiting the Anacapa Island Lighthouse, completed in 1932 to help sailors navigate the hazardous, foggy Santa Barbara Channel. Though tours of the inside are not available, visitors are free to explore the outside of the structure and the surrounding area to learn more about what life was like for lighthouse keepers. 
  2. Are you the artistic type with a penchant for more whimsical pleasures? The romantic in us suggests sharpening your pencils and packing your paints to capture the beauty of local wildflowers. With over 800 plant species, each island has a unique mix of flora. Some of the richest flower blooms can be seen on Santa Barbara, Anacapa, and San Miguel Islands. Slow down your pace and let the right side of your brain take over as you draw seaside daisies, wild hyacinths, and bush sunflowers.

By Sea

Two snorkelers in the green-blue ocean at Channel Islands National Park
Tim Hauf/NPS

Half of this extraordinary park consists of the rocky, windswept islands, but the other half is underwater! Sea life is a must-see aspect of this park. Its incredible marine life makes it a favorite among divers and marine biologists.

  1. Located within a marine reserve, Anacapa’s waters, as well as Santa Barbara and the eastern Santa Cruz Islands, will keep you busy for hours. With a buddy, snorkel and scuba dive through kelp forests, sea caves, and coves as you get chummy with the fishes.
National Park Service
  1. Love water mammals? The Santa Barbara Channel happens to be an excellent spot for whale, dolphin, and porpoise spotting. In fact, 27 species of cetaceans have been spotted in the waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park! Whale watching opportunities are available in Santa Barbara, Ventura, the Channel Island Harbors, and in the Los Angeles area.
  2. Experienced boaters are free to visit the islands without a landing permit, though a landing permit is required if visiting the Nature Conservancy on Santa Cruz Island. Before departing, calling your park ranger on the island for orientation in advance. From there, it’s smooth sailing!
  3. Get your board out, and your wetsuit zipped up. Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands all offer opportunities to catch a wave. Each of the spots offer a uniquely remote experience. Rugged terrains and lengthy hiking distances from the landing areas mean that private boats are the best way to access these spots.
  4. Kayaking from Santa Barbara’s or Anacapa’s Landing Coves is perfect as you look into the clear waters below to see a whole other world revealed. Along the eastern shoreline of Santa Cruz Island, paddlers can launch from Scorpion Beach to explore sea caves and see nesting seabirds and shorebirds on the cliffs. Off of Anacapa Island, kayakers can paddle through the iconic Arch Rock. Kayakers should remember to buddy up and respect the sea and the quickly changing weather in this park!

This remote chain of islands can be challenging to access, but once you’ve done the research and chosen a few activities, there’s no doubt that you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. No matter how you decide to explore this exceptional park, you’re bound to fall in love with its unforgettable views. Now, choose your adventure and go #FindYourPark, o mejor dicho, #EncuentraTuParque!

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